American Decline: What the Foreign Policy Elite Really Fear
There is a fixation in elite foreign policy circles these days to speculate on the impending decline of America’s global economic and military hegemony and to lament that decline as the dangerous end to international order. Without global American dominance, goes the thinking, lawless competition and chaos will rule.
Former Carter administration national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s latest book Strategic Vision goes through this lament. He worries that, absent U.S. hegemony, regional powers will be less restrained. Russia will bully tiny Caucasian states like Georgia; China will bully Taiwan; North Korea will threaten South Korea; diminished unilateral support for Israel would destabilize the Middle East; et cetera.
Thomas P.M. Barnett in World Politics Review takes a look at Ian Bremmer’s forthcoming book Every Nation for Itself, another lament of American decline. Post-hegemony, states will be “superseded by a generalized anarchy” in “an era [that] begets a ‘free for all’” and witnesses Asia’s rise, or even more ominously, China’s rise. Bremmer fears a world without the “global leadership” of America to “keep the peace.”
Indeed, this is the most interesting insight I drew from Bremmer’s book: The real danger of a G-Zero world is not the accelerated decline of the West but the unbridled — and unpoliced — appetites of the East. As Bremmer points out repeatedly, Western states need not fear a “world of regions,” his term for an era of pronounced regionalism. By and large, their national structures are more than robust for that scenario. But if it’s regionalism run amuck, the clash of civilizations most unlikely to unfold is not East versus West or West versus South, but East versus South — without a West as referee.
To buy into this is to have very little ability to self-criticize. This line of thinking assumes that the West, and America specifically, has acted like an impartial referee over the international system, which is really an absurd suggestion. What people like Brzezinski and Bremmer and Barnett really fear is not that the Benevolent Empire and the “global order” it preserves will be no more. Rather, the fear is that the selfish, unscrupulous, hypocritical, coercive disposition of other states will prevail instead of the U.S. government’s selfish, unscrupulous, hypocritical, coercive behavior. Other states will get to do the horrible things that only we’ve been able to do for decades.
Overthrowing governments that threaten the state’s supremacy, supporting the world’s worst dictators, committing the supreme international crime of unprovoked war, military bases spanning the globe…these things will no longer be solely American prerogatives.
“The concern over “’decline,’” writes Nikolas Gvosdev, “ is not that the U.S. is about to stop being a superpower; it is that future likely adversaries are not going to be the pushovers the U.S. has gotten used to for the past 20 years.” Daniel Larison comments:
What doesn’t make much sense about “anti-declinist” fearmongering along these lines is that relative decline isn’t something that the U.S. can avoid by making certain policy choices rather than others. It’s certainly possible to sap and exhaust U.S. resources in the fruitless quest to reclaim an unsustainable position. We have spent the last decade doing just that.
The U.S. can react to a multipolar world by demonizing and vilifying other major powers and by punishing them when they fail to fall in line on every international issue, which seems to be the preferred response of the most vocal “anti-declinist” presidential candidate, or it can attempt to find common interests with these other powers. The latter seems advisable, not least because a multipolar world is one in which the demands on and costs to the U.S. are fewer.